Chen Shi (Liao Fan), the suavely severe hero of “The Final Master,” is an apostle of the Wing Chun style of hand-to-hand combat. The moment you witness the hair-raising brand of Wing Chun he favors, you see why someone could be religiously devoted to this particular school of kickass: It’s cooler than cool. In “The Final Master,” the principal weapon on display is a dragon pole with a pair of butterfly swords attached to each end. It looks like a giant Swiss Army knife, and when Chen and one of his opponents go at each other, whipping those double-edged blade blossoms through the air (whoosh! whoosh! whoosh!), then slamming the daggers against each other (clang! clang!), we seem to have walked into the world’s most primitive yet elaborate street fight. It’s like seeing a lightsaber duel in which each fighter has the limbs of Edward Scissorhands. The combat scenes in “The Final Master” are galvanizing, and the most catchy element in them may be the post-sync sound effects. The airy scrape of metal on metal lends the scenes a slashing excitement.
“The Final Master” was written and directed by Xu Haofeng, the popular author of martial-arts fiction who wrote the screenplay for Wong Kar-wai’s “The Grandmaster” (2013). That movie was also the tale of a Wing Chun maestro — Ip Man, the guru who ultimately trained Bruce Lee — and though its images had a historical glow, it was a somber mess of a movie; it had neither enough fighting nor enough of consequence to make up for the absence of fighting. “The Final Master,” set in Tianjin in the 1930s, is actually a far better film, because Xu, as a storyteller, has crafted it as a likably skewed piece of wuxia mythology. It’s a passionate comic book in which the combat has meaning.
Chen, with his moody poker face (he looks like a goateed Matt Damon with bangs), takes a beautiful wife (Song Jia), who up until then he has barely spoken to, and he also takes on a brilliant apprentice, the feral prodigy Geng Liang Chen (Song Yang), a former coolie he trains to face off against the champions of eight out of the city’s 19 fight-club academies. Only if he can defeat all eight will Chen be allowed to set up his own academy.
If that entry bar sounds extreme enough to be a little nuts, have no fear — it is. And that’s without mentioning that Geng, even if he does succeed in winning all eight battles, will then be ostracized, and perhaps murdered, for the crime of having made the academies lose face. (And you thought getting into Oberlin was hard.) What makes all of this jumping-through-hoops ritual absorbing, rather than annoying, is that it’s driven by Chen’s devotion at all cost to the holy cause of Wing Chun. Liao Fan conveys the glamorous burden of an East-meets-Western hero, and the spark that animates the fight scenes, each of which is staged with its own unique tenor and style (and weapons!), is that they’re all being fought for a higher cause. Call it the Force of Wing Chun.
The story is choppy, to the point of being needlessly confusing at times, yet it also disarms our expectations in likable ways. We don’t get the usual training-of-the-disciple sequence, and that may be because the film doesn’t want the audience to develop too close an identification with Geng, since it’s built into his relationship with Chen that he’s going to be betrayed. Chen remains the hero, a man of grudging nobility, yet he is plotted against from all sides, and his marriage is a hotbed of pain, since Song Jia’s Guohui Zhao is in agony over the child she was forced to give up because of his non-Chinese father. For a martial-arts picture, there’s an unusual amount of angst rolling around in “The Final Master.” That’s one reason the fights are cathartic. They’re exploding with the emotion the rest of the movie scarcely knows what to do with.
Chen takes on each fight as a solemn call of duty, and Liao Fan, so commanding in the 2014 noir thriller “Black Coal, Thin Ice,” proves a dynamic physical actor by mimicking one of Bruce Lee’s most magnetic traits: His movements are lightning…but minimal. He does just enough to hit you, or cut you. When Chen faces off in an alleyway against an army of thugs equipped with bamboo staffs, or, later on, a cadre of academy hooligans wielding knives the size of car bumpers, he’s so good at turning their own energy against them that his enemies seem to melt on contact. “The Final Master” isn’t the knockout it could have been (the script has enough holes to feel a little too hollow), and it has virtually no chance to cross over to stateside audiences the way that films like “House of Flying Daggers” and “Kung Fu Hustle” did a decade ago. But if Xu can figure out a way to streamline his talent, he has the makings of a movie like that in him.